Addressing the needs of low-income communities requires a comprehensive approach that includes creating good jobs and helping low-income residents gain access to those jobs. In turn, that requires working across the programmatic and jurisdictional boundaries that currently separate housing, transit, workforce and economic development efforts within those communities. And it requires linking efforts within those communities with broader regional strategies.

One way to do that is to harness existing transit-oriented development (TOD) efforts, link them with workforce and economic development, and focus on transit corridors, rather than individual transit stations. Living Cities has been experimenting with that approach for the past two years in Denver and the Bay Area, and has learned two lessons for others interested in linking transit, workforce, and economic development efforts.

1. It’s hard to get workforce and economic development leaders to come to the TOD table.
Although many workforce and economic development practitioners see transit as integral to their work and are open to exploring ways to take better advantage of it, TOD advocates had trouble engaging workforce and economic development actors in this conversation at the TOD table.

One possible explanation is that TOD advocates aren’t influential enough to convene the conversation with key workforce and economic development practitioners. Nor are transit issues compelling enough to drive that conversation, since they don’t drive economic growth. The lack of a big enough pot of money as an incentive to join the table could also explain this challenge.

In any event, the best opportunities for transit advocates to link their efforts to workforce and economic development strategies may require joining workforce and economic development practitioners at their respective tables.

2. Focusing on transit corridors sounds great, but it’s hard to do.
Traditionally, TOD has focused on neighborhoods around transit stations, which is a useful geography for addressing housing issues. But that is too limited a scope for addressing economic or workforce development issues, since most people commute to jobs and training outside their neighborhoods.

However, just as a neighborhood focus may be too narrow in scope, a regional focus may actually be too broad in scope. It’s easier to identify a strategic opportunity, get key actors to come to agreement on what to do, and organize effectively across sectors to get things done at a sub-regional level. One way to carve out a sub-region is to use a transit corridor.

However, the existing workforce and economic development systems are not currently designed to operate within transit corridors. And they are not very well equipped to meet the needs of small, fast-growing businesses in those corridors.

For example, when Denver began to explore how to grow middle-skill jobs within two key transit corridors, they found very little existing information to work with. In fact, there was no system in place to regularly collect information on the needs of small businesses that have high growth potential.

So, the project funded its own survey of small businesses to find out what their needs are. They were surprised to find that, contrary to conventional economic development wisdom, the need for capital was way down the list. As it turns out, the biggest needs were for high-quality technical assistance. The project then funded a study of who was currently providing that kind of technical assistance, and found a highly fragmented collection of service providers spread across a large geography with no easy way for businesses to find them and no way to determine the quality of their services.

Both sites encountered a similar lack of information and fragmentation within the workforce development system, and ended up developing their own maps of who offers what training, and where they are located. They also found that the federally funded workforce system tends to be rather inflexible, due to large sunk investments in one-stop centers and community college campuses, where most training takes place, as well as rigid performance standards that limit who can receive that training. At the same time, non-profit programs, which have the advantage of being more flexible, lack the resources to serve an area as large as a transit corridor.

These challenges don’t rule out the possibility, or even the desirability, of linking transit, workforce and economic development within a particular transit corridor. In fact, it could still well be worth the effort. But all three systems would need to be retooled in the process.

The transformation of existing systems can be a daunting task. It’s very tempting to work around them and create alternative structures. However, if the past is any indication, those alternative structures would be difficult to sustain.

Moreover, working around existing systems would be a lost opportunity. Ultimately, the current workforce and economic development systems will need to be transformed to create good jobs and to help low-income residents gain access to those jobs on the scale that’s needed. To achieve lasting change, we need to resist temptation to work around the existing transit, workforce, and economic development systems and instead tackle these challenges head on.

Pete Carlson is a Senior Associate with FutureWorks, a consulting and policy development firm that helps design strategies, inform policies, and build institutions that promote sustainable, skill-based regional economic growth. He is a consultant with Living Cities.